This article was originally published at The Nerd Cave on February 1, 2014.
Three weeks ago the second Image Expo took place in San Francisco, CA. Editor Eric Stephenson and various creators announced a total of twenty new titles to be released throughout 2014. There were also announcements of longtime DC/Vertigo creators coming onboard, like Scott Snyder (Batman, American Vampire) and Bill Willingham (Fables), and the five-year exclusive deal signed by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips (Fatale, Criminal).
All of this excitement served only to provide a nice end cap to Image’s best year ever. In 2013, the publisher debuted 50 new titles, securing 8% of dollars in the comics market and 8.49% of units sold. Those numbers represent a 20% and 40% increase respectively. Critics and new sites have begun to replace the phrase “Big Two” (referring to Marvel and DC Comics) with “Big Three”. The Walking Dead had both the best selling collected volume and single issue of 2012, while Saga continued to make the majority of top ten lists. Image is clearly the comics publisher to watch.
That’s a good thing for comics.
Image Comics has changed a great deal since eight creators founded it in 1992. Rob Liefeld was ousted early on and Jim Lee sold his creations to DC Comics. The company originally synonymous with 90’s exuberance has evolved into something entirely different. However, the values of that company have remained unchanged.
When the founders of Image left some of the best paying jobs in the industry at Marvel Comics, it was so they could own their creations. Every character created by Chris Claremont during his 10+ years on X-Men belonged to Marvel Comics and would continues to make the company millions of dollars every year. Younger creators like Todd McFarlane and Erik Larsen were not interested in losing that kind of potential to a corporate ownership. So they left and were very successful launching best selling titles like Spawn and Youngblood. In the years since, Image Comics has become a home for creators looking to maintain 100% ownership of their comics and any associated properties. It has grown from a publisher of new superhero books to any comic that meets their editorial standards for excellence. The importance of creative talent and creator ownership has remained the cornerstone of the company the entire time.
Those values are what have allowed it to become more than a success story, but a representative of the future of comics. By focusing on talent, instead of intellectual property, Image has begun to move the industry past old models and mediums.
When the original Image creators left Marvel Comics, they were already successful, known by millions of fans. Their initial success was no surprise. This didn’t help to change the necessity of the work-for-hire model for new comers to the comics industry though. Small publishers were unable to provide extensive marketing for creator-owned comics, while Marvel and DC had little interest in publishing them (with the notable exception of Vertigo titles created by already established creators). That has changed. Creators like Jim Zub (Skullkickers) and Kurtis Wiebe (Peter Panzerfaust, Rat Queens) have found success through their own properties published at Image. With 8% of the market dollars coming through their doors, Image is capable of supporting creator-owned titles from the very start.
This may not seem like a major shift to many fans, but consider the artists who created the most beloved concepts in all of comics: Jack Kirby, Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, Bill Everett, Joe Simon, Bill Finger, Steve Ditko, Don Heck, and the list goes on, and on, and on. None of these artists ever had an opportunity to own their work. The best some could hope for was a publisher contract that would ensure they could continue to work on characters they created. They existed in a system where Bob Kane and Stan Lee could claim credit for concepts they barely touched, while they and their bosses made all of the money.
The existence of a major comics publisher that not only allows creators to retain ownership, but expects it, is not some minor feat, but the culmination of decades of work. It’s the company that can help to ensure creators have a safe place to work. What is now mundane, was once only a dream to the men who have inspired generations.
Image is also helping comics to move beyond the genre that those same greats brought into the public consciousness: Superheroes. Image still has boast worthy superhero titles like Invincible and Jupiter’s Legacy, but they do not focus on that genre in the way other publishers do. Instead there is an offering of genres and stories as wide as any other publisher can claim. Ranging from science fiction to romance to fantasy, the genre titles are not only varied, but good. There’s also an interest in promoting literary comics. The return of David Lapham’s Stray Bullets represents an absolute coup, bringing one of the greatest comics of the 1990’s to an entirely new audience.
This diversity is, in turn, helping to promote a diversity of readership. Most of the superhero titles in existence are targeted towards a white, male audience. This has continued to narrow the readership of comics for years. Now Saga, Rat Queens, Sex Criminals, and other Image titles are appealing to female readers in a way that no title at the “Big Two” can.
The expansion of the comics market is not being pursued by diversification of title alone. Eric Stephenson, in an interview at The Comics Beat, said, “Regardless what happens to print or to comic book stores, digital represents the future of the mass market, and it seems almost silly to pretend otherwise.” In addition to their offerings on Comixology and Amazon digital marketplaces, Image Comics is now selling books from their own site in a DRM-free format. It represents a forward-looking mentality. This, and their continued support of comic stores and small bookstores, represents an interest in growing the comics market, instead of just seizing market share from competitors.
Growth, creator ownership, and a diversity of stories: these are the ingredients for the perfect comic book publisher. No Chemical X required.
In 1948 the comics industry made one billion dollars in revenue (when adjusted for inflation). Yet after the institution of the Comics Code Authority, it has never come close to that high water mark, not even during the hay days of the 1990’s in which a debut issue could sell over one million copies. That doesn’t mean the best days of the medium are behind it though, only that progress has been significantly slowed, until now.
With dozens of new ideas every year and the ability to reach out to new readers, Image Comics represents the future of comic books.
Also, Casanova is back. How cool is that?